Frequently Asked Questions

This information is for historic and reference purposes only.  Content has not been updated since the last updated date at the bottom of this page.

2014 West Virginia Chemical Release

What is CDC/ATSDR’s role when responding to a chemical spill?

CDC/ATSDR plays a role in preparing the nation for many kinds of public health threats, including natural and man-made disasters. When a disaster occurs, CDC/ATSDR responds to and supports national, state, local, and tribal partners to save lives and protect health.

Emergency response begins at the local level. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (CDC/ATSDR) provides assistance at the request of local and state authorities.  While CDC/ATSDR does not take a leading role in responding to emergencies in a state or community, we help ensure that local and state public health departments are ready by providing technical assistance, advice, and expertise to strengthen their abilities to respond to all types of emergencies and build more resilient communities.

In the event of an emergency, this support includes providing scientific and logistical expertise, and deploying specialized personnel and critical medical assets to the site of an emergency. CDC/ATSDR also helps these partners recover and restore public health functions after the initial response.

When responding to a spill, CDC/ATSDR will

  • Act independently and objectively to make public health recommendations based on currently available science;
  • Review and assess environmental, health and community information and data;
  • Communicate with relevant federal, tribal, state, and local health and environmental agencies, and always the communities, while investigating a hazardous waste site or release;
  • Provide and explain the results of our evaluations, medical consultations, and investigations to states, communities, and tribes;
  • Provide environmental health education for states, health care providers, communities, and tribes;
  • Provide emergency response assistance for acute hazardous materials accidents;
  • Refer individuals to specialists in environmental medicine for health care follow-up;
  • Refer public health issues or problems to appropriate federal, tribal, state or local governmental entities when they do not fall within CDC or ATSDR’s areas of responsibility.

However, as part of an emergency response, by law CDC/ATSDR cannot

  • Conduct large-scale site or release-related environmental sampling (responsibility of the Environmental Protection Agency and state environmental agencies);
  • Enforce regulations (ATSDR is an advisory, non-regulatory environmental public health agency);
  • Provide medical treatment and health care services.

What is CDC/ATSDR’s legal authority?

Responding to chemical or toxic substance exposures is one of ATSDR’s primary responsibilities.  ATSDR derives it legal authority from the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA), commonly known as the “Superfund law”, and subsequent amendments by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 (RCRA) and Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986 (SARA).  CERCLA is the law that gives ATSDR the authority to provide federal assistance in chemical emergencies.

Page last reviewed: February 5, 2014